Umbrella 101 for Beginners: Bare Flash vs. Shoot Thru vs. Reflective Umbrellas

Umbrella 101 for Beginners: Bare Flash vs. Shoot Thru vs. Reflective Umbrellas

Many photographers get their start by taking natural light photos, then progress into experimenting with flash photography. Maybe you’ve tried a flash on top of your DSLR, only to become frustrated and disappointed from the results. If you thought those images looked bad, don't fear. There is an easy way for you to begin using a flash and achieve great results like your photography idols. 

The first step is to move your flash off camera. You’ll probably want to buy a modifier, too. Let’s discuss one of the least-expensive and most versatile options you can buy: the common white umbrella diffuser.

First, let’s all get on the same page with some terminology. That will help you better understand the basics, and also help you to decipher some of the elaborate lighting schemes you may see detailed on Fstoppers.

When I say “off camera”, it means that the flash is off the camera in the most literal sense. This is not an indication of where the light has been placed relative to the photo subject, but to provide clarity on how the flash relates to the camera itself. In the purist sense, the flash unit is not directly attached to the camera body.

Now that we know the flash is going to be off camera, let’s talk about the idea of using an umbrella.

There are plenty of different brackets and stand attachments that you can use to mount your flash and umbrellas on the stand. Decide on a budget, and go for it.  Do the same with your umbrella purchase. A future article will discuss some of the different umbrella size options commonly available, but today’s examples come from a standard 43-inch Westcott umbrella. It’s a good product, and is very affordable. Go buy one or two. You’ll be happy with these guys.

We are going to use radio remotes to ask the flash to fire at the proper time, but that is for another post.

Since we have the flash unit off camera, let’s establish a baseline of what our light could look like. If you choose to use the flash without an umbrella, you’re going to see what is commonly described as hard light. This is especially true if you have the flash at a distance from your subject, and aimed directly at your subject.

I’m shooting these images with a Nikon d800 and a SB900 flash. The settings are 100 ISO, f/11 and 1/250th for the shutter speed. I’m using a 50mm lens.  Since we are going to be discussing the ideas of diffusion, light fall off, light spill and feathering in the future articles, I’m using a composition that will give us a good view of the background. We want to study the light on the subject, but we also need to study the light around the subject, too. Therefore, the flash is about 3 feet from the background. Our background is a standard 107-inch Savage seamless roll of paper. All in all, you are seeing what is basically the left and right edge of the roll of paper.

Obviously, the power setting of the flash unit will change to make sure we retain f/11 across the board for our examples.

So we have our background and our light, and we are trying to use our umbrella, right? We’re going to place our umbrella in front of the flash, using the umbrella as a shoot thru. Here’s what I mean what I say shoot thru: The flash is aimed so as to shoot the light through the umbrella and onto the photo subject. Here’s an example of what to do, and what not to do.


Nope! Better turn the flash around.

Getting closer, but we want that flash aimed into the umbrella.

No way. This isn't going to work so well.

Now that we have placed the umbrella in a shoot thru position let take a look at how that changes the light produced by the flash.

Do you notice how the highlight and shadow definition are drastically different? What about the even nature of the light? With our hard, direct light, the transition from highlight to midtones to shadows can be seen and identified very clearly, right? It’s a fairly abrupt transition. Since we have diffused the light with an umbrella, you should notice now that the light is not hard or harsh, and is more even across the right of the image. Also, the transition from highlights to midtones to shadows is gradual and not as abrupt. This is what people commonly describe as soft light.

Now, still staying with our trusty white umbrella, let’s try a different position and see what that looks like. In fact, let’s just turn the umbrella around and take a look at how the light hits our background when we use the umbrella in a reflective position.

Here’s how that is set up relative to the background. Your flash is still going to be aimed at the center of your umbrella, but you won’t be aiming your flash directly at the subject. Instead, your flash will face away from the subject. Sounds a bit counterintuitive perhaps, but this will make sense, I promise. Rather than using the diffused light from the umbrella that was previously aimed right at our subject, we are going to use the diffused light that is reflecting back at our subject. Yes, even though our flash is aimed away from the subject, the umbrella is going to produce a reflected light and push that back into the frame.

OK, that’s it for this week. Check back next week and we will begin discussing positioning the umbrella relative to your subject and how that changes the light in your photos. Future articles in this series also include examples of different sized umbrellas, different positions and angles of the umbrellas, and a discussion about how the umbrella is lighting both your subject and background, among other things.  If anyone has any questions, please post them below!

Aaron Ottis's picture

Aaron is a photographer living in the Midwestern United States.

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Thanks Aaron. This is exactly what I'm looking for. I know that the majority of the F Stopper's readers are pro photographers and know how to properly use a flash, but there are also some people like me that merely manage to trigger the flash :)
On the web there are thousand tutorials for PS, AE, guides about iso, aperture and codecs, but finding a good guide for flashing its quite difficult.
Sorry for my english, I'm still learning even in this field.
Greetings from Italy.

No problem, Alberto. I'm here to help!

this is worth the money if you want to use flash

Ciao Alberto,

check this out:

Also very very useful intro ...

Thanks for the article, and I can't wait for next week's. I'm actually shopping for a lighting kit now. I know this is Umbrellas 101, but could you explain the difference between using a softbox kit and an umbrella kit? Besides, the obvious continuous light. Like why would you choose one over the other?

Sure, Caleb. I look at the difference like choosing the type of car you want to drive. They all do something a little different; they all have a personality and you have to work with each one to understand the pros and cons. If I were you, I'd consider purchasing an umbrella first. I think they serve as a great starting point. Once you get the hang of the umbrella, you can add in one of the many different types or sizes of soft boxes. In fact, you could start to use both the umbrella and the soft box at the same time, if you wanted.

I'm going to show how the size of the umbrella can change the light in another post, so that might help you decide which one is right for you.

Softboxes are a little less forgiving in their placement, because the light is more directional and has less spill. Moving a softbox a few inches can drastically affect the look of the light falling on the subject, while moving a similarly sized umbrella the same distance might not influence it as much. It will still be different, but umbrellas allow you to be a little less precise then softboxes. They're also much more portable, much cheaper, and much faster to put together.

This is just a general view, however. These aren't hard and fast rules of softboxes and umbrellas. You also have to take into account the size of the umbrella/softbox, the size of the light source, as well as any other light sources (if any) that you are introducing into the photo.

I hope this helps, and anyone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, haha. :P

Sorry, your flash is mounted backwards. If the flash is pointed away from you, the friction knob should be on the right. Notice the umbrella slot is tilted. The flash should aim at the center of the umbrella.

Hey John, that's a good catch, but actually that particular bracket doesn't allow you to mount the umbrella at a different angle. I do know what you are talking about though. Many other brackets let you balance the flash right in the middle to help balance the hotspot.

Aaron, if you look a the sample pictures the umbrella shaft is slightly angled downward even though the bracket is completely vertical. The hole in the bracket for the umbrella shaft is slightly angled upward. If you were to slide the umbrella into the bracket in the opposite direction so that the umbrella is angled upward, also turn your flash the same way, the flash would point more closely to the umbrella centre.

Adam, I probably could have been clearer with the response before, but yes, I know what you mean. Unfortunately, this particular bracket is not designed with the angled slot to allow angled placement of the umbrella. What you are seeing is the weight of the umbrella forcing the front end down, creating that downward angle. Many, many other products account for this sort of thing and aim the flash right into the middle of the umbrella. The bracket in the photos does not. It is just a plain jane, straight slot that allows just enough movement for the umbrella to droop.

This was an exceptionally good article a friend alerted me to. Sure wish I had made myself aware of these concepts this past weekend. Well, never too late to learn. Looking forward to more next week....and now to maybe get a larger umbrella. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

You will probably address this question in the article next week, but would you recommend satin or reflective umbrellas - adorama has both and I wonder what the difference would make. Thanks much.

Difference is you CANNOT shoot through a reflective. Whereas the satin can be used either way, but with much reduced reflectivity.

I haven't touched my "regular" umbrella since purchasing a shoot-through. It's so much easier to work with a shoot-through, you can get it nice and close to the subject, but not in the frame. With regular umbrellas I find it a bit more work to keep the umbrella close but not get the umbrella or light stand in frame.

Either your umbrella isn't big enough to position it further away or you're just positioning it too close to your subject. If it's a 40 inch umbrella or larger you can place it up to 6 to 8 feet away and still get beautiful, soft light. Your umbrella won't ever be even close to being in your shot. I've never had that problem with any of my reflective umbrellas. Not even the 33" ones. Try moving it a little further away from the subject than you think you need to have it. Trust me, you'll still get nice, soft light ;)

Nice old school wizards!

Been using that one forever...just keeps on ticking!

Just be careful not to leave batteries in there too long, or use two AAs with different percentages of charge. Those early ones had no voltage protection and could cause battery acid damage.

- Former PW tech support guy.

Here is a composite I just finished showing open vs shoot-thru at various powers. Notice the shadow differences.

Always interesting to read how others describe their observations and how they relay that.

Funny post, love the pictures and the flash do's and don'ts.

Hi there...would love to read this article but there seems to be a problem. There is just the opening picture (or maybe 2/3 of it), than an advertisement and nothing more :(
No button to click, no text.

Thought I was going mad - but the missing article is happening to others! (phew! ;-)

Hey Andrew, the higher-ups are working on this!

It appears as if the article has vanished, apart from the title and one photo of an umbrella, there's nothing here...

Simon, should be resolved soon. Sorry for the trouble.

Don't worry about it, you guys run a great site with great content, keep it up!

All I can see is a photo of an umbrella….. no text… no video… no arrows to over to next page etc..

Broken link?

Please help. Thanks.

Dan, this should be fixed soon.

Loved this article Aaron and looking forward to reading the rest in this series. Great job!

Aaron, I'd love some help figuring out exactly what I need to buy to get this setup. I get confused when I start searching on Amazon. I found this kit will that work?

Hi there guys!

I have one doubt, I thought White Translucent umbrellas were shoot through and silver/gold, etc were the reflective ones.

I'm just starting to use my umbrella and just changed from shoot-through to reflective. Your articles, after just browsing, are clear and concise. I'm new here but loving the education, articles, photos, and comments. Big thank you!

hi ! i would like to know where to go to view the next week please ? thanks =)